The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Imagine, if you will, a world where gamers were not the most oppressed minority. Imagine instead that they were respected as world-class academics, if academics were worthy of respect. Further imagine that they live in a fully automated luxury gay space communism where every facet of their life is provided for by sassy robot nannies.
This is the Culture. And the best gamer in the galaxy, the Jocker himself, is named Jernau Morat Gurgeh.
Gurgeh only plays real time strategy games. He is the best. He writes dissertations and research papers on how to most effectively perform a zerg rush, or proper tower defense positionings. The Culture eats that shit up. Gurgeh is a rock star, sponsored by both Space Doritos and Future Dew. The androgynous men want to be him, the androgynous women want to be with him, and vice versa.
One day, Gurgeh is pitted against a literal little girl and he realizes he can beat her so bad that he might be able to perform “the perfect web”, which is when you absolutely dunk on a 9-year-old girl in Civilization IV on national television. An insane battle droid named Mawhrin-Skel who was rejected from the battle droids for being insane tells Gurgeh that he’s already run the numbers, and he can show Gurgeh how to do the perfect web. It’s only kind of cheating. Don’t be a wuss. Gurgeh agrees because he’s an asshole.
Not only does the insane battle droid’s strategy not secure him the perfect web, the robot then blackmails him with a recording of Gurgeh’s agreement to cheat in order to trounce this “prodigy” (still very much a 9-year-old girl). Mawhrin-Skel wants to get back into the battle droids, and he wants Gurgeh to do that, somehow.
Gurgeh has no formal rank. He has no sway in the galactic government, and no control over where drones are deployed. His job title is “gamer”. But, rock and a hard place. What’s a gamer to do? He says he’ll try.
A ways down the line, a government droid comes from the government to invite Gurgeh to play a new, incredibly complex game in the empire of Azad. Gurgeh agrees, contingent on the government droid returning Mawhrin-Skel’s previous position to him. The government droid says he probably can’t but he’ll try.
Gurgeh is loaded onto a spaceship and spends two years learning to play the game, which is also called Azad. Azad permeates every facet of life for the warlike, totalitarian empire of Azad, and their stupid fascist children are taught it from the moment they hatch or crawl out of the Apexes or whatever. There are three genders on Azad: males (boring, vanilla, essentially worker drones), Apexes (the ruling illuminati elite, reversible vagina and ovum), and females (uterus and retrovirus for slight modification of the egg once implanted by Apexes). Only the Apexes are allowed to do anything. The other two genders are beaten down from beginning to end of book.
Gurgeh isn’t as effected as he probably should be by the horrors of the empire, their cultural domination/sadism boner, or the torturous slavery lived in by the overwhelming majority of the species, and all the species they’ve conquered and subjugated. You’d think he’d be doubly effected, being from Bernie Sanders’ Starfleet utopia. Gurgeh doesn’t care about anything but gaming. He’s here for one reason: to play Magic the Gathering.
Thing is, Magic the Gathering isn’t just a game on Azad. The species themselves, the whole of the empire, are an obvious stand-in for a theoretical future in which Germany won WWII. They’re a pure fascism, they have propagandists and a gestapo, the whole of their society is held together by pursuit of further conquest and elevation of the ruling elite Apexes. Most things are illegal, but those illegal things are still purchasable, and more sought after for it. There are three layers of taboo pornography permeating the planet, communicated through secret channels and only for those who can pay:
Level 1 is generic smut, banging for banging’s sake.
Level 2 is humiliation porn, where the banging is secondary to the domination of the passive party/parties.
Level 3 is torture and snuff porn.
Gurgeh is exposed to this by a chiding shrew of a robot named Flere-Imsaho, sent to help grease the political wheels and avoid an intergalactic incident. Ostensibly, Gurgeh is supposed to play the game lose quickly, and demonstrate to the roving space viking Azad empire that the Culture is a joke unworthy of their time and warships.
But Gurgeh breaks out his Blue control deck and starts stacking those Ws. Victory royale after victory royale, there’s no stopping the boy. The Azadis recognize that things are going less than ideally and attempt to assassinate him a few times, but he is saved by his human contact on the planet, Culture ambassador and drunken HST analogue Shohobohaum Za.
Za is the best character in the book.
Gurgeh knows that the stakes are for real, and that the way Azad’s political system works is governed entirely by success in this game, which takes a lifetime to learn. The emperor is chosen based on who wins the planet wide tournament. Gurgeh, who has learned this game in two years, is absolutely spanking his way through all of the established pro-Azad players in the empire: priests, judges, bureaucrats, high-ranking politicians; even when they conspire together against him, they wind up activating his Trap card. Gurgeh sweeps the boards and sets up a head-to-head against Emperor Nikasar himself.
Once it becomes apparent that he also whooped Nikisar, and all of the space-Nazi dullards are also able to see it, they break for the day and Nikisar comes to visit him in his chambers. Gurgeh is like “golly, this is such a pretty and fun game we’re playing, and a good time between friends.” Nikisar beats the shit out of him and leaves.
Gurgeh goes into the next day’s session all lumped up and proceeds to noscope Nikisar in front of the entire galaxy. Right before he administers the killing blow, Nikisar has his foot soldiers sweep in and start murdering everyone in the room. Nikisar himself tries to kill Gurgeh with a sword. Gurgeh calls upon all of the combat training he never had because he lives in paradise to kangaroo-kick the Nazi emperor in the tummy, fall on the ground, then skitter across the burning wreckage until Flere-Imsaho shows up, activates his Deus Ex Machina protocol, and creates a mirror shield around Gurgeh, deflecting Nikisar’s laser pistol shot right back into his own domepiece and toppling the entirety of the Nazi space hierarchy.
Gurgeh returns home, where his girlfriend Yay tells him she transitioned to a dude for a couple years but now she’s transitioning back. They bang it out but Gurgeh is still melancholy because the horrible space empire collapsed and now he’ll never get to play Magic the Gathering again, which had become his favorite game.
In the end the narrator reveals itself to be the crazy battle droid, who disguised himself as Flere-Imsaho after manipulating Gurgeh into going to Azad in the first place for Special Circumstances, which is like the Culture’s version of the CIA.
I have a rule where if a book doesn’t have me hooked by 25% of the way in, I quit and never look back. This book very nearly missed the mark. It didn’t get good until after he went to Azad, around halfway through the book; the setup was sluggish, uninteresting, and droning. The first 100 pages could have just been the words “Gurgeh was very good at board games” and the story wouldn’t have suffered for it.
Four stars for that experience, but still an excellent read. I might make my way back into the Culture series, but not right this second.
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The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks